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In MIT visit, Miliband presses for Afghan peace deal

British foreign secretary uses Compton Lecture to urge Afghanistan’s government to reach out to insurgents.
Photo: Justin Knight

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Wednesday urged the Afghanistan government to consider bringing Taliban supporters into its political system, telling an MIT audience that the prompt pursuit of a political deal among Afghanistan’s warring factions was necessary to build a lasting peace in that country.

“My argument today is that now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort,” said Miliband SM ’90, delivering the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture in Kresge Auditorium.

Miliband’s talk came as U.S. and British troops make a renewed push to secure the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. The Western troops have been attempting to control the town of Marjah, and aim to secure the region’s major city, Kandahar, this summer.

While acknowledging the necessity of the military action, Miliband struck a different point of emphasis in his talk, stressing the importance of a simultaneous process of political reconciliation. “Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the neighbors [nearby countries] are onside with the political settlement,” said Miliband, whose Labour Party is expected to face a strong challenge from the opposition Conservatives in Britain’s forthcoming general election later this spring.

The lecture was intended in part to send a message to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has suggested his country hold a jirga in April — a kind of grand peace negotiation about the country’s political future. Western governments want to make clear to Karzai, re-elected in controversial circumstances in 2009, that they expect improvements in governance to accompany improvements in security.

“The international community will judge him by his actions, not his words,” Miliband warned on Wednesday, later adding, “The Afghans themselves must own, lead and drive such political engagement.”

Talking to the Taliban

Miliband’s speech laid out a framework for the “political outreach” that he thinks will be useful in reconstructing Afghanistan. As Miliband sees it, a sustainable Afghan government will need to be more inclusive of ethnic Pashtuns, who have often supported the Taliban; will need to decentralize and provide better support for regional governors and governing councils; should give parliament a greater voice in political affairs; and must address the pervasive problem of corruption in the Afghan government.

Adding these elements to the Afghan political system would mean supplementing the Bonn Agreement, the accords worked out after the successful capture of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, by the United States and its allies, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those attacks were carried out by al-Qaida terrorists given protection and resources by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

In turn, extending the tribal and ethnic scope of Afghanistan’s government would inevitably mean bringing former Taliban fighters or supporters into the fold. “The idea of political engagement with those who would directly or indirectly attack our troops is difficult,” Miliband acknowledged. However, he added, “dialogue is not appeasement and political space is not the same as veto power or domination.”

To be sure, Miliband said, he has no expectation that all militants would themselves be willing to participate in a process of reconciliation. “Some insurgents are committed to al-Qaida’s violent extremist agenda,” Miliband observed. “There will never be reconciliation with them — they must be beaten back.”

Upward trajectory in ‘two to five years’

A portion of Miliband’s lecture was devoted to acknowledging the complications of getting Afghanistan’s many neighbors to agree on a path forward for the country. Pakistan, the country regarded as having the most influence inside Afghanistan, “holds many of the keys to security and dialogue,” Miliband said. “It clearly has to be a partner in finding solutions in Afghanistan.”

Miliband noted that like other nations, “Pakistan will only act according to its own sense of its national interest.” That said, Miliband also said he believes there has been a “significant change” in Pakistan during the last 18 months under President Asif Ali Zardari, and he expressed optimism that countries with vested interests in Afghanistan — including India, Russia, Turkey and China — will recognize a basic fact about the region: “The status quo in Afghanistan hurts all.”

And Miliband did, at times, re-emphasize the importance of military progress to the possibility of civil reconstruction in the country. “Only if the scale of the insurgency itself is reduced will the Afghan authorities be able to govern their land in sustainable or acceptable ways,” he said. Fewer than half of regional governors even have an office; fewer than a quarter of them have electricity.

Still, Miliband suggested, if both military and political progress take place in 2010, then “within two to five years it is realistic to aspire to see a country on an upward trajectory, still poor but with a just peace, with democracy and inclusive politics bedding down at all levels and with incomes growing.”

After his talk, Miliband, who earned his master’s in political science from MIT, was presented a school ring onstage, from the Graduate Student Council. While on campus two decades ago, he remarked at the outset of his speech, “I would never have believed that I would be British Foreign Secretary in a Labour government explaining a war in Afghanistan.”

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